How does my question make a customer feel? How do my employees receive and process my comments when I lead meetings? These are great questions to ask. But sometimes, it’s hard to get truthful answers — unless, you flip your situation.

I find that people I work with often think they know what others are feeling or thinking and, as a result, can be dismissive — especially if they score fairly low on the Gallup Empathy strength. This is the case with me, and I have to be intentional about asking how others might perceive an action or statement. The only way to really do this is to walk a mile in their shoes.

I came to this realization through an unplanned personal experience. Last year, I became a client of a business coach, a customer of a professional services firm, and a member of a team I wasn’t leading. These were new experiences for me. Basically, as everything flipped, it helped me see my business and leadership style through other people’s eyes.

If you have low Empathy strength like me, that means you don’t naturally sense and take on the feelings of others. To be clear, empathy is not the same thing as compassion or sympathy. In fact, I often find people who are high in Empathy (depending on their surrounding strengths) to be less compassionate. While I might feel sad for someone, I don’t instinctively know or feel his or her emotions.

But when you become the client, customer, or employee, that’s exactly what you do: You learn how that individual feels! In all these situations, the people I worked with were highly competent, and often, I found myself thinking: Oh, I never realized how one might respond to this situation or how it might feel to be on this end.

Being a Follower Makes You a Better Leader

Throughout this experience, the biggest aha moment has been on the engagement side. If you lead, and especially if you’re the highest-level leader in your organization, this is vital. Join a team where you’re “one of the troops.” Participate fully, then reflect on each session with these questions:

  • When did my energy rise or fall, and what caused that change?
  • What did the leader do or say to increase or decrease my commitment to the mission or goal of the team?
  • Do I feel a sense of community with the other team members? Why or why not?
  • What actions by the leader pulled the team members closer together? Further apart?
  • Am I apt to share my criticisms or ideas on how we can do things differently? Why or why not?
  • How does the distribution of responsibilities impact how effectively the work is accomplished? What about the productivity and satisfaction of the group and individuals?

I plan to write a full blog post on some of my lessons learned, but the experience itself drove the points home faster than any article I could ever read. In fact, I’ve been teaching and consulting on engagement for years, but living out the principles brought an entirely new level of power to them.

For example, I was shocked by how disengaged I became when others’ ideas weren’t given any credence. I also wonder how much more I would’ve contributed (time and energy) if I’d been asked to do work in my areas of strength, and I realized I didn’t volunteer to do so because of the team culture (even though stepping up is normally my automatic response).

Being a Customer Improves Your Client Experience

When our business coach asked some challenging yet simple questions, I found myself stammering (not usually an issue for me). At times, it felt overwhelming to try to sort things out in my mind and relay the answer. And it felt great when he cut through all the mental chaos and identified the real issue.

That journey from “oh no, I don’t know the answer” to “oh wow, I never thought of it like that” was more difficult than I realized. And our coach did it all extremely well. Because of this experience, I was able to recognize the extra processing time my clients’ needed and the additional patience and compassion I should offer them.

Your Challenge: Plan a way to Flip” your situation in the next 30 days.

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    Loriana Sekarski is founder and president of BONSAI, a consulting company that transforms leaders (and businesses) into the best version of themselves. As a leadership coach, Loriana teaches leaders how to hone soft skills, spur workplace engagement, and achieve untapped levels of potential. Outside of BONSAI, Loriana serves as an adjunct professor at Washington University’s graduate student program. Additionally, she's fine-tuning her passion project, TakeFlight, a division of BONSAI that launches organizations, churches, and marriages to boldly live out their purpose by leveraging their strengths to achieve their God-given destiny. TakeFlight has just developed Revealing Hidden Shackles, an innovative curriculum that examines domestic violence within the Christian community.